On Sunday, Richard Sherman made the game-winning play to send the Seattle Seahawks to the Super Bowl. Then, he gave a memorable post-game interview, which quickly became a cultural controversy. Most of the initial reactions to Sherman’s unorthodox interview were negative, some outright racist. Others were more supportive and contemplative. The reception as a whole raises several important questions. What does it mean that so many people were offended by Sherman? What does it say that a harmless bit of bragging by an NFL player generated so much controversy? What does it tell us about the cultural politics of race, about the symbols and codes we use to discuss race? What does it say about the current state of American racism?
In researching the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, I have come across several such controversies that have helped me make sense of race, meaning, and historical change: Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing; the Sister Souljah moment; the Water Buffalo incident at the University Pennsylvania. The list of such hullaballoos goes on. One such controversy that I’ve been trying to understand lately is the moral panic over sexually explicit rap music, particularly the music of 2 Live Crew.
2 Live Crew, a Miami rap band whose 1986 debut album, The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are, took, in the words of one music critic, “sexually explicit rap lyrics to a new level of nastiness.” That album, which included the notorious track, “We Want Some Pussy,” went gold. The band’s next album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be, which featured the wildly popular single, “Me So Horny”, was released in 1989 to even more commercial success. As Nasty As They Wanna Be placed 2 Live Crew at the center of a cultural firestorm—a controversy that carried over from an ongoing moral panic about popular music. Like all good American moral panics, the 1980s music scare became the subject of congressional hearings in 1985 when the Senate heard testimony on the subject of “porn rock.” Such hearings were made possible by the tireless efforts of Tipper Gore and her fellow “Washington wives,” the patronizing title given to the four women who founded the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC). The PMRC successfully convinced record companies to place warning labels on the covers of explicit records and CDs, labels that became mockingly known as “Tipper Stickers.”
Conservative groups, including Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association (AFA), also responsible for leveling outrage against Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, did not think “Tipper Stickers” were adequate warning for the depravities contained within 2 Live Crew albums. Jack Thompson, an AFA lawyer, convinced Florida Governor Bob Martinez that As Nasty As They Wanna Be met the legal classification of obscenity. In 1990, a U.S. District court judge in Florida ruled the album was, indeed, obscene and, thus, illegal to sell. Undercover police then arrested several record storeowners for selling the album, and 2 Live Crew band members were arrested after performing it at a nightclub. No guilty verdicts ever came of any of the arrests, but the legal dispute added to a national controversy that, in turn, took on the added dimension of race.
Most of those who publicly fought to criminalize 2 Live Crew argued that censorship was a necessary step because of the causal nexus between sexually explicit music and the sexual abuse of women and children. The desire to protect children was consistent with the PMRC’s stated rationale for its activism. Gore picked a fight with the music industry after overhearing Prince’s wildly popular song “Darling Nikki,” about a girl masturbating in a hotel lobby, playing on her 11-year-old daughter’s stereo. But moral panic reached new heights with 2 Live Crew. The PMRC wanted “Tipper Stickers” on Prince’s Purple Rain album as a way to inform parents about the content of the music their children were consuming. The PMRC did not intend for the state to censor music in the manner that government officials were going after 2 Live Crew. Why the disproportionate response? 2 Live Crew’s lyrics were indeed more explicit than most. But race almost certainly played a factor.
Phil Donahue dedicated an episode of his daytime talk show in 1990 to the issue of 2 Live Crew and music censorship. Included among his guests were 2 Live Crew rapper Luther Campbell and AFA lawyer Jack Thompson. Thinking aloud about why 2 Live Crew was seemingly being singled out, Donahue stated: “We’ve got to wonder about racism.” Donahue played a Madonna video—from her “Blind Ambition” concert performance of “Like a Virgin,” which included scenes of her stroking herself and gyrating—and asked, “If we arrest Luther how come we’re not arresting Madonna?” One of Donohue’s audience members implicitly answered this question when she stated that 2 Live Crew’s music isn’t “even art, it’s not even music, it’s rap.” Indeed, this was often the argument made by cultural gatekeepers. Noted music critic Robert Bork, for instance, described rap as “generally little more than noise with a beat, the singing is an unmelodic chant, the lyrics often range from the perverse to the mercifully unintelligible. It is difficult to convey just how debased rap is.” Such a take ignored that millions of Americans did indeed perceive rap as music, and as artistic representation worthy of their patronage. As Jello Biafra, the lead singer of the punk band Dead Kennedys and outspoken critic of the PMRC, hilariously responded to the Donahue audience member who denied that rap is music: “Not everyone wants to hear Lee Atwater sing the blues.”
Many American liberals, to the degree that they defended 2 Live Crew against government censors, did so merely out of their stated support for the principles of free expression. Very few argued there was anything culturally redeeming about 2 Live Crew. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who testified on behalf of 2 Live Crew—testimony that perhaps helped the band members get off on all charges—was one of the few exceptions. Writing in The New York Times, Gates argued that 2 Live Crew needed to be understood in historical context. “For centuries,” Gates wrote, “African Americans have been forced to develop coded ways of communicating to protect them from danger. Allegories and double meanings, words redefined to mean their opposites (bad meaning ‘good,’ for instance), even neologisms (bodacious) have enabled blacks to share messages only the initiated understood.” In other words, we were not meant to read 2 Live Crew so literally. Even its most offensive, downright misogynistic lyrics needed to be taken with a grain of historical salt. Gates continued:
2 Live Crew is engaged in heavy handed parody, turning the stereotypes of black and white American culture on their heads. These young artists are acting out, to lively dance music, a parodic exaggeration of the age-old stereotypes of the oversexed black female and male. Their exuberant use of hyperbole (phantasmagoric sexual organs, for example) undermines—for anyone fluent in black cultural codes—a too literal-minded hearing of the lyrics.
Whether 2 Live Crew intentionally wrote lyrics with such a cultural history in mind is not really the point, just as it’s not really the point whether Richard Sherman’s exuberant outburst of bravado was a conscious deployment of parody on the level of Muhammad Ali. 2 Live Crew was popular, in part because, yes, “sex sells,” but also in part because they, consciously or not, tapped into a rich cultural discourse about race and masculinity that was interesting to white and black audiences alike, often for very different reasons. 2 Live Crew, like Richard Sherman, should thus be understood at the level of parody: as exaggerated totems of our racial and sexual anxieties.
This is not to say that we should endorse the content of 2 Live Crew, which was indeed indicative of misogyny, or of Sherman, who is perhaps an emblem of how we consume violence. Rather, we should be aware of our rampant racial hypocrisy. As Gates asked: “Is 2 Live Crew more ‘obscene’ than, say, the comic Andrew Dice Clay? Clearly, this rap group is seen as more threatening than others that are just as sexually explicit. Can this be completely unrelated to the specter of the young black male as a figure of sexual and social disruption, the very stereotypes 2 Live Crew seems determined to undermine?”
That said, go Broncos! (What can I say, I’m from Denver.)